In Phuket. Wish you were here

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The Independent Online

On Thursday morning, from a boat in the Andaman Sea, I spotted a troupe of grey macaques scampering on the sand of a sheltered bay. As we drew closer they ran down to meet us, the bolder ones plunging into the waves - a big male hauled himself on to our boat, accepting slices of fresh orange before executing a perfect dive back into the turquoise sea. But it was not just the sight of swimming monkeys that I found disconcerting; only 10 minutes before, we had set sail from Phi Phi Don, where 2,700 people died when the tsunami struck on Boxing Day. Another 700 are missing, presumed dead, making this small island Thailand's equivalent of Ground Zero.

On Thursday morning, from a boat in the Andaman Sea, I spotted a troupe of grey macaques scampering on the sand of a sheltered bay. As we drew closer they ran down to meet us, the bolder ones plunging into the waves - a big male hauled himself on to our boat, accepting slices of fresh orange before executing a perfect dive back into the turquoise sea. But it was not just the sight of swimming monkeys that I found disconcerting; only 10 minutes before, we had set sail from Phi Phi Don, where 2,700 people died when the tsunami struck on Boxing Day. Another 700 are missing, presumed dead, making this small island Thailand's equivalent of Ground Zero.

Ten weeks later, the huge task of clearing up continues, with barges waiting to take rubble to nearby Phuket, where 600 people died. Phuket was luckier, protected by coral reefs which absorbed some of the force of the tsunami - some five-star hotels have already been renovated, with whole gardens replaced after salt water killed trees and grass. Their baby elephants, which bolted inland as the tsunami rolled in, confirming tales of animals sensing the disaster in advance, are back at work, providing rides for guests' children.

On Phi Phi Don, things are very different. The tsunami battered the narrow strip of land that connects the two halves of the island, destroying several hotels; it is an eerie feeling, walking past cleared sites where only wooden signs, showing room numbers, provide a clue that rows of chalets once stood here. Even more harrowing are the scattered possessions of staff and holidaymakers - I can see someone's CD collection, including the soundtrack of the second Bridget Jones movie, which was filmed on Phuket. And then there are the makeshift shrines to the dead, including a colour photograph nailed to a tree, showing the graduation of a young Thai woman. Most poignant of all is a teddy bear, planted in the sand by the parents of a child whose body has not been found.

On Phuket, where holidaymakers are beginning to trickle back, there are signs in the big hotels announcing the presence of temporary embassies. Immediately after the disaster, the sumptuous Banyan Tree Hotel provided free accommodation for a team of British police officers, sent out to help identify bodies. "You don't want to know the details," the hotel's English executive director said grimly. In return, the police collected the per diem payments they were entitled to and donated $35,000 (£19,000) to the disaster relief fund. The big hotels have recovered more quickly than fishing villages like Bangtao - on Wednesday evening, I walked along Bangtao beach and watched a group of men fit an engine, donated by the Austrian government, to a new boat. The King of Sweden visited Phuket last month - of all European countries, Sweden had by far the most casualties - and donated 200 boats to help the island's economy.

Everything, though, depends on a revival in tourism. In January, 90 per cent of bookings to Phuket were cancelled; in February, only 20 per cent of the island's 30,000 hotels rooms were occupied. According to Wichit Na-Ranong, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, 10,000 people are unemployed and thousands more have been reduced to part-time work. It is a similar story in other parts of southern Thailand and in Indonesia, where bookings are down in Java and Bali, hundreds of miles away from the devastated area. Nor is it just Westerners who are staying away; Asian tourists have stopped coming, I was told, because they fear encountering the ghosts of people whose bodies have not been recovered.

There is a widespread feeling that foreigners do not understand that the tsunami was almost surgical in its effect, leaving vast tracts of South-east Asia intact. "The tsunami was like a light going out," I was told by the owner of the Phi Phi Island Village, a luxurious and mostly undamaged spa in the east of the island. You do not have to be superstitious to feel qualms about enjoying yourself near sites where so many died, but the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands depend on visitors returning to this most beautiful part of the world.

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